Another amazing journey

Returning from Worcester was another amazing journey, although "amazing" in a slightly different way. My friend couldn't make it from Oxfordshire; he lives in the country and was completely snowed in. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because there were some travel "issues".

On the 6th (my non-traveling day), there was a trivial amount of snow[1] and massive panic. Schools closed, trains cancelled, at least one airport closed entirely (?!?), etc. It was about 8cm in Worcester, which everybody was saying was the most in fifteen or twenty years. Other places got as much as 25cm.

As a Canadian, I was torn. On one hand, I was very smug about my snow-superiority. On the other hand, being from Vancouver, I know that even a light dusting of snow can be fatal for unprepared drivers, and England seems even less prepared for snow than an average Vancouverite. And I know that although I'd have no problem with this amount of snow in my mother's car, that car was specially bought to handle snow... and in any case, the problem is never the snow itself; the problem is the other drivers in the snow. On a third hand, I was extremely smug about my power over the weather (just before going to Singapore, Vancouver had the most snow in 10 or 15 years -- clearly the weather gives me what I pine for!). On the fourth hand, I am a Canadian, so I'm compelled to apologize for causing a disturbance. Regardless of whether or not it's actually my fault.


I should be going to the university soon, so I'll do points for the rest.

Final touch: I cut myself on my chair. No, that's not a typo. I had my shoes and socks off, and yanked the chair towards me (turning as I did, to sit down), and one of the legs (it's a roller chair) hit my right ankle. And apparently the construction of the chair left some sharp edges in the plastic; it took two minutes for the bleeding to stop. After that, I tried to keep it elevated, but the back of your ankle is an awkward thing to have elevated... if it was on a toe, that'd be trivial, but I had to bend my leg around and stick it on my bed. Oh well.

I'm sure that a normal British person would be complaining about that train journey, but I honestly don't mind. Trains are a novelty, it was an adventure... in some ways, I was even hoping for a trip with delays and cancellations. I mean, that's part of the British rail experience, right? I'd have felt ripped off if my journey home had been as smooth as the journey down there.

Oh, and for the final final note: Glasgow definitely feels like my home now. I had the same feeling about Victoria... it became my home when I returned from being away.

Posted at 2010-01-07 22:30 | Permanent link | Comments

Amazing journey

I just had (an hour of) the most amazingly good journey of my life, taking the train from Glasgow to Birmingham. I took notes as I went, and filled them in later. Later edit: ok, only the first 90 minutes were great. The rest was just normal train stuff.

It snowed about 2cm the night before -- not enough to make anything difficult, but enough to make everything look beautiful. It also improved the footing; walking on snow is much, much easier than walking on ice. The snow did cause some transportation problems. Other trains (even on the same route!) were delayed and even cancelled. So when I left home for the 45 minute walk to the station, I didn't know if I'd be going or not.

I didn't care, though, because it was a fantastic walk. The trees looked great with the snow, the riverside walk was quiet and away from traffic, there was fresh snow on the trees, crunching the fresh powder underfoot was fun, and did I mention the pretty snow-covered trees?

The train station was above the ground floor, which surprised me. It was quite open and well-organized, though. Part of me wants to say "Victorian", but only because I associate trains with that era. Definitely picturesque. It also had more coffee shops per capita than downtown Vancouver. There were a few police offers around, but it defintely felt like a transportation place rather than a prison / secrity-place (i.e. an airport).

The train left 11 mintues late; no big deal. My coach (1 of 3 normal coaches; there was a separate first-class coach) was about 30% full? It was way less than I expected, especially given the earlier cancellations. Everybody in my side of the coach had a pair of seats to themselves... there were two seats on either side of the aisle. I couldn't see if it was more packed in the other coaches, but I doubt it.

The train itself was smooth, not significantly noisy, had bigger seats than an airplane, way bigger washrooms, power sockets for all pairs of seats, and OMG why do people put up with planes for travel inside a country? I mean, seriously. You're not treated like a criminal before you get to the vehicle, you can just walk up to it without arriving hours early to wait in a series of lineups... it's a totally different way to travel.

Scenery: omg omg omg. The 2cm of snow was the most significant precipitation we've had in 2 or 3 weeks, but MAO was it well-timed. Snow on trees? Fields of smooth, untouched powder?!?! There's something about untouched powder that makes me go "rowr". Also, small creeks meandering through white fields. Mao, now I want to go skiing.

Hills: looking gorgeous. I want to go hiking. I'm aware of safety, though, so I'm not over-keen to go by myself. Maybe when somebody from Vancouver comes to visit, we could go north for a bit and find some hiking trails?

Trees: the sudden treelines would normally look ridiculous, but in the snowy landscape they somehow work. Maybe because everything looks toylike, so a computer-game-type "block of field, block of trees, block of field" fits with the toy theme?

Pictures: given my experience with previous cell phone pictures, I'm not keen to try more. Also, the windows seem to reflect inside light, so the pictures would probably be even worse than they would otherwise be.

I saw some sheep... I think they were sheep. Various livestock, at least.

We went through a patch of thick fog rising from a snowy field, obscuring distant hills or forest or roads -- I could only see unbroken snow powder merging with fog/cloud/steam a few hundred meters away. Beautiful. Only lasted about 5 minutes, but wow.

After an hour, it wasn't as impressive. Less snow, less hills. Probably in England instead of Scotland. :)
(after a quick check with fellow passengers, we're still in Scotland, although we're getting close to Carlisle, which is the first stop in England. We haven't had any stops so far, BTW.

After an hour and twenty minutes, we arrived in Carlisle and picked up more passengers. Including somebody with the seat next to me, to my annoyance. The scenery wasn't as nice, either -- light industrial areas, warehouses, a few houses, motorways, etc. Flat.

I definitely like Scotland more. (well, to be fair, more than that part of England)

The two hour mark had us in an area with low hills; maybe the lake district?

We had more and more stops in England, picking up more and more passengers until we go to Crewe. This part of the journey wasn't amazing at all; it was almost like a bus ride. We stopped every 15-20 minutes to pick up or drop off passengers. We arrived in Birmingham 30 minutes behind schedule, but everything else was behind schedule as well due to the panic over a centimeter or two of snow. (wusses!)

Brimingham New Street Station was a bit confusing; there were 12 platforms, some of which with an "a" and "b" side. Much worse was that there were no trains going to Worcester! I mean, not just "I missed my train and must wait 2 hours", but there just didn't seem to any such trains!

After wandering around for a bit, I asked a station attendant, who directed me to another attendant, who told me I wanted the train to... Hereford, I think? I honestly can't remember the name, and that was only 15 minutes ago. In any case, it was platform 12b, which had a train leaving in 10 minutes. Either it's a common run, or the earlier train was delayed, or I just totally lucked out.

It would have been nice if my tickets -- or at least iternary -- had specified that I wanted the train going to XYZ, rather than simply telling me the station I wanted to get off at. Grr. Oh well, at least I know for next time.

Overall, I'm inspired to leave my lab routine. Travel by train was easy, not all that expensive if you book a month or two in advance, and there's some spectacular scenery in Scotland.

Getting out and seeing the city? Bleh. Clubs, shopping, "city" things: bleh, not interested. Art museums: sorry, but also bleh. Architecture: ok, not entirely bleh here, but not enough to make me go significantly out of my way. But nature? Not bleh. The hills look good, although of course they're nothing compared to the Rockies (a mountain range in Western canada). I want to go north and see the Highlands.

The above was true of my time in Singapore -- I was never inspired to go downtown, and in the few times that I did, I didn't find anything particularly interesting. But I loved looking at the plants (often the "normal" plants growning at the side of the road -- special plants in a zoo or whatnot are supposed to be special; I liked the exotic plants in "normal" places) and animals.

It took over 2 hours to write this post, because I kept on stopping to stare at the scenery in Scotland.

Posted at 2010-01-05 12:33 | Permanent link | Comments

Slippery city

We still have ice here from the snow a few weeks -- and not just a thin layer of black ice; this is ice compacted from a few centimeters of snow. Even worse, the temperature has been slightly above freezing during the day. A little bit of ice melts, turns into water and levels out the surface, then freezes overnight. Very slippery conditions.

I always used to complain that shovelling snow -- if it was a little bit, like 5cm -- was counter-productive. I mean, most snow is just fine for walking on. Even if it partially melts + freezes again, you just have a crunchy layer at the top of the snow, but the rest is pretty un-slippery. The really dangerous part was the ice that you get on the almost-bare surfaces.

Now that I've experienced truly well-trodden snow, I have to admit that my parents were right to make me shovel the sidewalk. In some parts of my daily commute, there's two centimeters of ice on the sidewalk. Apparently it's not a legal requirement here to clear the sidewalks... or maybe that law just isn't enforced. There's one short stretch of sidewalk which the city put sand on, but the rest is all bare ice. In any case, I've never seen walking conditions this bad for this long.

I don't think my lack of proper winter boots is a problem, though. If this ice was more jagged, having proper treads would help, but I haven't found many pieces of jagged ice due to all the thawing-freezing cycles. Oh well; I'm getting good practice for my balance and reflexes.

I admit that I fell once, but that was due to the law of universal comedy. I was leaving the flat of one of the professors after a Christmas dinner. His wife called out "be careful, it's slippery!". I half turned to wave and said "oh, I'll be fine" -- with the last word being affected by a Doppler shift as the sound source suddenly dropped a meter. Fortunately, the angle of my half-turn protected the chocolates I was given, and I got my other hand beneath me to cushion the fall.

In related news, it's "that time of the year" again, when I need to take special measures to control the bleeding. As usual, I left it a bit too late, but I'm ok now.

... I'm referring to my hands. When it's cold, my skin gets very dry, cracks, and blood oozes out. Particularly from the knuckles. A few days ago, I had to be careful when folding my laundry to avoid getting blood on my clothes.

After a few days of gingerly washing my fingertips (to avoid getting the back of my hands wet, since that makes the dryness worse when it evaporates), I finally went of to Boots to get some cream. It worked amazingly well; I've only put it on twice, and my hands are almost back to normal. My bedroom now smells like skiing, but oh well. It fits the season, I guess!

(cream -> smells a bit like sunscreen -> I only use sunscreen when skiing -> room smells like skiing)

In yet more mundane news, I'm really making myself comfortable in the lab. I have a desk drawer with a dozen cans of diet coke (it's much cheaper than buying from the vending machine!), about twenty of those delicious chocolate-mint-wafer no-name biscuits from Sainsbury's, some Christmas chocolates, and two pairs of socks (in case my feet get wet on the way to university). I also brought my dressing gown (it's made from thick fluff material, like a towel -- this isn't a flimsy girly negligee!), which I leave on my chair when I'm not wearing it.

I swapped violin cases with the other violin (it only has three strings, and the bow has a ton of electronics taped onto it; nobody's going to miss that case!), so now my shoulder rest fits in the violin case. I found some music stands in a corner of the lab, and took one back to my desk, where it holds the Bach violin partita no. 2. I'm even working on the Chaconne!

New Year's Eve was a non-event for me; I woke up at 8pm, and went about my normal business. While I was writing a reply email to my mother about the 19 equal-temperament clarinet, I heard some firecrackers outside, and muttered to myself about young hooligans. When I reached the end of the reply, I saw that she'd wished me happy new year, and I realized that the firecrackers had been set off at midnight.

I'm now seriously working on setting up my software on windows. As I've said a few times in the past, I used cross-platform libraries, so in theory it should be easy to get it working on windows... but it's proving extremely difficult to install software on windows.

I've installed cygwin, but that doesn't have all the libraries I need. I installed python, but that requires manually adding /cygdrive/c/Python/include to CFLAGS and ../lib to LDFLAGS. I have windows git installed, but the command-line that this gives me is different from the command-line that cygwin gives me, which is also different from the command-line that windows comes with. Copying to and from the cygwin windows is a completely byzantine process. Libraries like libsndfile get installed to Program Files/Mega-Nerd/libsndfile, which requires yet more manual CFLAGS and LDFLAGS.

Ye flipping mao, hasn't anybody heard of a shared location for include files and libraries?! How on earth do people get anything done on windows?! I've spent ten hours, and will probably spend at least another ten, trying to replicate what, on my linux machine, would be a one-line command:

aptitude install libsndfile-dev libsamplerate-dev libaubio-dev libfftw3-dev qt4-dev-tools python-dev

And if you think the above command is confusing, that's just because I'm posting it as text -- I use a graphical tool to look at all the available programs, click on the ones I want, and then click an "install" button. The operating system then downloads the programs, installs them, configures them, and I'm good to go. It takes approximately 10 mouse clicks and maybe 15 minutes (mainly spent downloading). I can write emails or have tea while it's taking the 15 minutes, though.

Posted at 2010-01-02 00:10 | Permanent link | Comments

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